The US military has, especially over the last couple of decades, become convinced that high-tech is the solution to all problems. Any battlefield or tactical problem can be solved with the latest piece of kit. The result has been the F-22 (only 195 built at a unit cost of $150 million, and a program cost of $66.7 billion), the Crusader howitzer system (cancelled due to a projected unit cost of $23 million each, minimum), the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (cancelled after over 10 years, at an estimated unit price of $22.3 million, and a total program cost of over $15 billion), to name but a few.
Hand-in-hand with the high-tech boondoggles has been the need to up-armor everything. Research has shown that the optimal max fighting load for an average infantryman is about 48 pounds. In 2005, after just getting the ESAPI and Side SAPI plates, one of our guys weighed himself with and without kit (just fighting load–vest, plates, ammo, helmet, M4, MBITR, and water; no rucksack) and figured out that he was carrying about 75 pounds, and that was without long-term sustainment or other mission-essential gear. Add in a ruck and it gets even worse.
Watch some of the YouTube videos of Marines in Helmand. Their tactics suck just because they’re too weighed down to do much more than trudge upright over open ground, in broad daylight. When they fight, most of the time they go static and shoot until the bad guys stop shooting back. It’s not just weight, either. The more kit the infantryman wears, the more unwieldy and constricted he becomes. Sure, armor has saved some lives. It’s also reduced our overall combat effectiveness, and done some permanent damage to the bodies of our infantrymen.
So here comes the Pentagon with a new solution, that instead of listening to the troops and lightening the load to allow better freedom of movement, mates high-tech boondoggle with the up-armor obsession. Meet the TALOS program. In short, the military wants an “Iron Man suit,” first for SOCOM, then for the infantry. Climate-controlled, powered armor with a direct video feed to the soldier’s Eyepro.
While just about every footslogger out there has, at some point, muttered, “This is the 21st Century! Where’s my powered armor?” the cool factor has to eventually yield to practicality. Anyone who has been downrange knows how unreliable just about any technology can turn out to be; the more moving parts, the worse it gets. Furthermore, bulk and weight are liabilities, regardless of how strong you might be.
In urban environments there are plenty of times when a man needs to get into a small space that is hard enough with current body armor, never mind an “Iron Man suit.” Furthermore, the power requirements are going to be prohibitive in actual combat; advertise how much the exoskeleton can carry all you want, but the power supply, along with replacements because the batteries are going to run low when mission parameters change and you’re out for longer than the mission brief assumed you would be, and that available weight drops. Remember the problems with electric cars and their battery life? Increase that by about an order of magnitude. Furthermore, you just added another logistical step into the mix, which means another potential point of failure. And forget about stealth. Heavy and bulky is noisy.
Just about every feature of this dream suit has showed up at some point in movies or video games. One might almost be tempted to suggest that the people pushing this need to spend less time in front of a screen and more time in the field.
The casualty-free, high-tech, push-button hyperwar has been a fantasy of the Pentagon since at least Desert Storm, which was the last and only real time it’s been used successfully. We’ve seen the reality of modern war for the last 20 years, ever since a bunch of Third World militias shot down two multi-million-dollar Blackhawk helicopters with two RPG-7s. The RPG-7 launcher costs anywhere from $100-$500, and the warhead another $50-$100, and the weapons were introduced in 1961.
It’s especially disturbing that it’s SOCOM pushing this program. The very first SOF truth is, “Humans are more important than hardware.” Yet here SOCOM is, pushing a program that puts hardware over skill. Apparently, nothing has been learned in the last 20 years.